"Half an hour." Dale raised up on his elbows. "What time is it?"
"She's the lead mare." Dale picked her out, grazing near the centre of the group. Several other mares with foals were close to her.
It looked so casual. Just horses, grazing. And yet when you looked at the deeper pattern you could see the lines of defence, a wild herd independent and alert, and even in their casual grazing, heads regularly lifted and looked, keeping watch. Flynn started Leo forward again, walking down the valley.
"How can you tell?"
The stable command seemed to help. Numbed, Dale ducked automatically under Flynn's arm and took the bridle, moving slowly enough not to spook Leo, and Flynn knelt on the grass to run his hand down Leo's forelegs, first the one he stood on and then the one he held up. He spent several minutes feeling and manipulating, then sat back on his heels, face expressionless.
"What might it be?" Dale said softly, holding Leo's head and mechanically rubbing his nose.
"What do you need?" Dale asked, watching him. Flynn looked up, hands still on the shivering Leo.
He looked white, and he was still favouring the forearm. Dale shook his head without hesitation.
Flynn gave him a long and searching look, and then nodded. "Ok. Send Jas up here, he'll know what we need. Then take Riley and get Raglan and Boris. Riley will know where they are. They'll be strong enough to walk Leo back in a sling." He began to unbuckle Leo's tack, lightening the weight on him, and Dale came to help. "Bring Nekkid back with you too, I'll ride him home. Remind Paul he can't bring one of the four by fours up here or we'll be towing it out of a stream, and ask him to track down Clara. Got all that?"
No need, leaving him after a fall like that? Dale made no comment, took Hammer's bridle and swung himself up into the saddle, trying not to too obviously watch Flynn or Leo as he headed Hammer north east towards the ranch.
"Leo had a fall." Dale slid to the ground and hooked the rein over the porch rail with no time to waste on pleasantries. "Flynn wants Raglan and Boris. He said they can walk Leo back in a sling, he's damaged a foreleg."
"Hell." Riley said eloquently, throwing the broom back towards the stables and heading towards the corral at a run. "Jas!"
"Good morning-" Paul started to say cheerfully, and then stopped, his face changing. "What's happened?"
"How hurt and how bad?" Paul opened a cupboard and pulled down a pack which he sorted through rapidly, coming up with a card of pills.
"I'll get Nekkid," Gerry said, dodging past Dale to get to the door. Dale followed him and Paul put out a hand to stop him.
"I've got everything else we'll need." Jasper said calmly. "Where exactly, Dale?"
The Clysdales came gladly to Riley, surrounding him, and Dale saw him pull his hand out of his pocket, sharing around some of the oats he and the others often carried. He slipped head collars onto the roan and the paint shires and they followed him through the gate, padding placidly after him. Dale shut the gate and took the lead rope on the paint shire.
Flynn gave him a wry smile and took the pills, unscrewing the top of one of the water bottles. He drank for some time. Dale unzipped the bag, took out the ice packs and the towel covering them, and wrapped the towel around the packs. Flynn accepted the wrapped bundle and gingerly rested his arm against it.
"I thought Bandit didn't like geldings." Dale said softly, watching. Riley pulled the straps of the sling under Leo's belly to reach Boris, buckling the sling into place.
"Bandit'll go nuts." Riley protested. Flynn shook his head.
"With the mares out here? He won't leave them."
Flynn flexed his elbow a few times, then handed the ice packs to Dale and came to Boris, taking the head collar off him and walking over to Bandit who was still nosing at Leo. Bandit didn't look for a minute at the halter as Flynn held it out. Flynn waited, saying nothing. Jasper stood very still, weight still against Leo's shoulder, watching Flynn. Then Bandit lifted his head and Flynn slipped the halter over, clicking softly to him. Bandit walked quietly around in a circle and alongside Leo, and came to a halt where Flynn stopped him. Leo lifted his head to touch Bandit's and stood still, and Flynn leaned under Bandit's belly, taking the straps and fastening the harness quietly over Bandit's back and shoulders. He was not too far off a match for Raglan in height and closer still in power, and this time when Flynn and Jasper tightened the sling, lifting weight slowly from Leo's feet, Leo stood still and quietly.
The woman stood back and her eyes widened as she saw who stood on the other side of Leo.
"He's a sweetheart and he's brighter than I am." Riley said shortly and vehemently.
"In a minute." Flynn climbed the fence and disappeared into the barn, coming out with the wide black bucket that lived just inside the door. It was half filled with oats and Bandit stepped confidently towards him, knowing who they were for. Only one horse on the ranch had the unfailing privilege of being hand fed. Flynn held the bucket for him, and while Dale couldn't hear a sound, he could see from Flynn's moving lips he was talking to the stallion while he ate.
"It'll do you good." Paul said, smiling at him. "You can write to Ash and tell him how we're mistreating you."
"You think he'll be sympathetic?" Gerry demanded. "He keeps on at me about a little seven pounds I put on at Christmas and how I don't get enough exercise, he'll love this."
"Yes, I'll see to it." Jasper put his hand behind Flynn's head, cupping and pushing him gently towards the house. "Leave it now. Go and get that arm dealt with."
"Can I do it lying down?" Gerry said languidly.
Paul leaned against the table and took Flynn's hand, working the wrist and fingers before he felt gently along the bones of his forearm. Flynn shut his teeth and turned his head away, catching Dale's eye and making an attempt at a smile, although it didn't last long.
"Fine, yes." Paul put both hands on his shoulders, guiding him very gently to his feet. "Bath. Now. Dale, go and tell Jasper he's in charge."
Jasper nodded, still watching him.
"Paul will win." Riley flipped the saddle soap over in his hand. Gerry sat gingerly down on the grass with a grunt of discomfort.
Body language was key. Dale had attended sufficient training and classes to know very well how to both read and to use his own body language deliberately. Open posture, relaxed, hands loose, non committal expression….
"Excuse me." Dale interrupted, getting up with the cleaned saddle in hand. He took it into the stable, past Jasper who was watching and who smiled at him. Dale returned the smile, still mechanically controlling his body language. In the tack room he hung up the saddle and then folded his arms and rested his forehead on them. Stomach churning, mouth dry, he had no idea why he felt so awful. Or why his instincts were demanding that he got away, as far away as possible. He'd never wanted to go for a run so badly in his life.